Wednesday 21 February 2018

Tony Ward: Uncertainty in Munster coaching set-up just beggars belief and puts players in difficult situation


Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo by Rob Casey/Sportsfile
Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. Photo by Rob Casey/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The only problem with winning is that it can sometimes paper over some ugly cracks. It's Cardiff next for Munster so given their position - despite beating Connacht in the Sportsground - at the bottom of Conference A alongside the Ospreys, Munster will be looking to make this a fourth win from five.

That is a pretty reasonable return by almost any standard.

Indeed, as a long-suffering Leeds fan, I am currently suffering from acrophobia based on early-season form at Elland Road.

However, Munster Rugby doesn't operate by any old standard and when we have the current coach endorsing another South African (currently out of a job) as a potential successor ahead of a top-of-the-table clash with one of the pre-tournament favourites then something truly is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Leinster folk might not like hearing this but Munster are among the top brands in the global game. To have such uncertainty surrounding when the head coach and his second in command abandon ship simply beggars belief.

I don't know David Wessels or anything about him but when the two left holding the fort - Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones - are aged 38 and 30, to have a 36-year-old being touted to join them, presumably as the chief, is beyond comprehension. Munster deserve better than that. I wish Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber weren't leaving but they are and in the interim the players are being sold short by what appears to be a coaching vacuum.

I feel for them in their current plight. How can you possibly be loyal and 100pc committed to a coach, any coach, when you know he is biding his time to get out. The proverbial s**t may yet have to hit the fan on this one . . .

Elsewhere, it was a disappointing weekend at best in the Guinness PRO14 with Ulster the sole Irish side coming out on top. Success breeds confidence and that is certainly the case at the Kingspan right now as Bernard Jackman's Dragons were beaten every bit as convincingly as the scoreline suggested.

I detect a more guarded approach from Les Kiss this time around. They are a long way from the finished article but given the changes - particularly at half-back with Paul Marshall and Pete Nelson in the vanguard on Friday - the omens are positive.

It was good to see Darren Cave back given the presence he brings to midfield, while Charles Piutau is electricity on legs in attack. Nick Timoney's potential has been clearly marked since underage and given his involvement as a back-row with the Ireland sevens, the qualities he brings to the Ulster back-row (and how encouraging it is to see some Leinster talent being spread around) are obvious. He is not Nick Williams but in terms of dynamism or impact off the bench the Timoney dynamic is already marked.

However, for me the biggest plus so far is the form and gradual return to match fitness of Chris Henry. At his best there is no flanker more adept in the modern game at pressurising the 10/12 channel minus the ball than the stand-in Ulster captain.

Even with Marcell Coetzee, Jean Deysel, Robbie Diack, Iain Henderson, Sean Reidy and Clive Ross fit and firing, the wiser but still-mobile Henry will prove extremely difficult for Jono Gibbes and Aaron Dundon to leave out.

While winning becomes a habit, losing streaks can be terribly awkward to shift. Right now, that is what Connacht coach Kieran Keane finds himself trying to do.

Despite the extraordinary achievement of 2016 there is still a naivete about Connacht that borders on self-destruction.

The challenge for the former Chiefs backs coach is to unearth an Aaron Cruden-type figure or, in soccer parlance, find a couple of individuals who will 'stand on the ball' to arrest the frenetic nature of a game and insert common sense. It is as easy to play the percentages as it is to talk about them.

Forget all the 'first receiver' mumbo jumbo, the out-half is still the main man and just as AJ MacGinty did in the glory year it is up to either Jack Carty, Steve Crosbie or Andrew Deegan to grab that play-making initiative now. The Cardiff game was decided by Willis Halaholo's second try late on but given the difficulty of the kicking conditions he should have been forced to offload for a try closer to the corner.

These are basics and the challenge for Keane is to marry their second-half control through the hands with simple appreciation for position when prudent to do so.

Unless Connacht crack this quickly the competitive season will be over before they know it.

In a positive vein, it was good to see Ultan Dillane back taking the ball at pace into contact and maintaining possession. Few locks do it better. Jarrad Butler looks a good find, while John Muldoon impressed as ever irrespective of the odd dropped ball. Indeed, if there is an implied criticism maybe it is time for Captain Courageous to call the territorial strategy more assertively.

Leinster were comprehensively beaten by the Cheetahs in the opening hour in Bloemfontein and despite the final score being an intercept try they got what they deserved from the game.

The result is encouraging for the PRO14 competition and both South African franchises will come good, particularly the Free State side.

The positives for Leinster were in the form of Barry Daly as a strike finisher, with his hat-trick of tries particularly impressive. Josh van der Flier was absolutely superb and was comfortably Leinster's stand-out performer in defeat.

At half-back I was disappointed in Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park appearing to go through the motions.

Only Nick McCarthy of the four halves provided a fighting spark in what was a collective blip but also a timely reality check.

Irish Independent

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